Solihull Community Housing’s head of ICT, Chris Deery, explains how the housing provider is increasing its use of digital channels, in particular email and social media, to communicate and engage with its tenants.
Solihull Community Housing’s research suggests that 60 per cent of our tenants have internet access, rising to 83 per cent of tenants of working age. Our aim is to communicate via email with those tenants who are online. This will save us money, especially in postage, and the money saved can help free up resources to support the 17 per cent of working-age tenants who are not online and are likely to be most seriously affected by the ‘digital-by-default’ nature of the new universal credit system.
Our welfare reform team has contacted those tenants affected by the benefits. When they talk to tenants, they also discuss digital inclusion issues to help inform tenants about the wider impacts of welfare reform.
SCH is also providing volunteers who work two days a week in the local library to help tenants who need to access the universal job search system; this is seen as being a key part of our corporate social responsibility targets.
SCH uses all the usual digital channels including the web, Facebook and Twitter. We now have almost 2,000 followers on Twitter, compared with fewer than 500 in May 2011, reflecting the general move towards electronic communications.
For example, we recently reunited two lost dogs found by our caretakers with their owners using Facebook appeals. We now have over 600 ‘likes’ on Facebook, compared with 300 in May 2011. Facebook has generated some good debates among users (cycle paths, welfare reform and our high-rise over-cladding project) and these were good opportunities to put our point across. We hold regular competitions on Facebook and we have promoted community events and local jobs.
Our research suggests that young male tenants aged 18-25 are far more likely to lose their tenancy than other groups. These are often people on very low levels of income/benefits who may well have just come out of the care system. Our welfare reform team are contacting people in this group and will be offering them access to a digital ‘logbook’ to help them manage their finances and tenancy. A digital logbook gives tenants a personalised portal to information about their home, their tenancy and their benefits.
We are introducing a mobile app that will allow tenants to pay their rent using a smartphone and we are also developing a Facebook app that will allow people to view their rent account from within Facebook.
We have recently turned on a facility in our main Capita housing management system that means whenever a housing officer sends a letter to a tenant, the system will automatically check to see if an email address has been provided by the tenant and if so, the system will send an email instead of a letter. This has been running since February 2013 and has already saved us at least £1,600 in postage costs. Although email is not new, before we switched on this email facility, our income collection manager asked if any other housing providers in the West Midlands were using email to send out arrears letters to tenants. He was told that no one was using email and that all arrears letters were still being posted.
We are prepared to take risks to move the digital agenda forward. We are sending these arrears letters via email when other housing providers have not taken this simple step out of fear that it might weaken a potential eviction case in future.
Of course, when we first started sending the emails, quite a few were bouncing back due to the address being out of date or having been mistyped into our housing management system. These teething errors have been fixed and now we very rarely see emails bounce.
No communication tool is 100 per cent reliable. Human errors will always cause problems, telephone numbers will get transposed, the postman will put someone else’s letters through your letterbox, and text messages sometimes disappear into cyberspace. However we have been using email now to send all sorts of letters and have found no evidence to suggest that it is any less reliable than any other communication channel.
We also encountered a feeling from some users that if something is important it should be sent by post. There was a feeling that a letter in an envelope on headed paper with a proper person’s signature carried more gravitas; perhaps a tenant could dismiss an email more readily than a letter. However, we have been sending out arrears letters by email for around six months and have found no evidence that tenants are more likely to ignore an email than a letter. We have also found no evidence that arrears levels for tenants who receive communication via email are different to those who receive their communication by post.
While it’s still early days, I would have no hesitation in advising any similar organisations, with the capability to do so, to go down the road towards email communication.
Chris Deery is head of ICT at Solihull Community Housing.